Anton Willis grew up in rural Mendocino County, with easy access to rivers, lakes, and the ocean. A recreational but not avid kayaker, he was forced to become even less active in the sport in 2008 when he moved into a small San Francisco apartment. With little spare space and no car, Willis exiled the fiberglass kayak into storage. Others might have taken up running or cycling. But Willis, an architect and product designer, saw his kayak problem as a surmountable obstacle — and an extremely interesting design problem. So he created one that could be folded up, stashed in a trunk or closet, or even checked on plane. Twelve feet long, 12 inches wide, and 25 pounds, it’s portable enough for its user to hike it in to remote waters. It’s called the Oru Kayak.
Willis’ work is all about making nature more accessible to — and appreciated by — city dwellers. He’s done work the California Public Utilities Commission and led a finalist team for the California Cleantech Open, the nation’s premier competition for green technology startups. His lunar resonant streetlights, designed in collaboration with his wife and design partner, architect Kate Lydon, as well as artist Christina Seely, was an award-winning proposal for streetlights designed to respond to ambient moonlight, dimming and brightening each month as the moon cycles through its phases. The project won the Metropolis Next Generation Prize in 2007. But back to the kayak. His idea came from frustration; his inspiration came from an origami physicist (specifically Robert Lang, who’d been written about by Susan Orlean in a New Yorker profile). The article, which discussed new advances in the art and science of origami, prompted Willis sketch a few ideas for a folding kayak. Origami seemed like a potential way to create a boat he could use in the city.
“The first ‘aha’ moment came early,” Willis explains, “When I realized I could make a paper model with elegant, curved lines, not the angular forms usually associated with origami.” This was no simple paper boat: Sketches turned into countless paper models, and over 25 full-scale prototypes. The first full-sized prototype was a bit of a disaster — it sank in the standing water of Berkeley’s Aquatic Park. But later ones quickly improved, not just in terms of durability but also stability, assembly techniques and time, and portability. He started working in a garage, then moved to TechShop in San Francisco, where he began experimenting with all the tools at his disposal there. He CNC-ed, laser-cut, and used other tools to hand-build many of the prototypes, always user-testing along the way. CNC machines helped with prototyping. The large shape being cut is the seat, which also becomes the lid of the case.
Friends and even random strangers have been testing the Oru Kayaks since the beginning. Says Willis, “People often asked to try the kayaks when we were out with them in the bay. In the past year, we became more systematic about getting and using feedback for design improvements.” Total novices were recruited (people who’ve never been in a kayak) and have been impressed by the Oru Kayak’s lightness and stability. Pro-level sea kayakers happily volunteered “to do performance and durability testing in the ocean surf to help us improve the product,” says Willis. “And they’ve been excited about the performance and handling. There’s nothing like it on the market, says Willis of the product, which is patent-pending. Stable inflatables are difficult to steer and rotomolded kayaks are difficult to transport — which is what makes the Oru all the more unique. A kids’ model and more colors are coming soon. “It’s very stable while still elegant and quick on the water,” says Willis, “We’re proud that its a very beginner-friendly boat, and truly incredibly simple to assemble — it’s the magic of origami.” ( By Allison Arieff from www.wired.com ) Oru Kayaks will be sold online at the link bellow.